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How to Set Up a Record Player to Get the Most Out of Your Vinyl

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Today, music has become digitalized, such that you’ll find most people simply streaming music from their favorite online music stores or playing their favorite tracks from portable music players. However, there’s an increasing interest among many people today opting to go the vintage way of playing music from vinyl record players. Most music stores are also stocking vinyl records, and this is making it easier for vinyl music enthusiasts to access their favorite tracks on vinyl records. If you have ever used a turntable, you know that it’s not easy setting it up for the best sound. These vintage music players demand a lot of manual operation, thus getting it right requires some basic skills. Here are some easy-to-follow tips on how to set up a record player to get the most out of your vinyl.

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1. Place Your Turntable On An Appropriate Surface

A record player works through vibrations. Vinyl records come with grooves that make the stylus vibrate as the record rotates. The vibrations are turned into electric signals, which are then amplified by an amplifier, and then turned into sound waves by a speaker. Thus, for the turntable to produce the best sound, it should only decipher vibrations on the grooves and not from any other external sources. Thus, the last place you would want to place your turntable is on a vibrating surface. For instance, if you have booming speakers, they may make the furniture vibrate, thus you should not keep the turntable on such vibrating furniture.

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When setting up your turntable, ensure you place it on furniture that won’t vibrate as the music plays. Preferably, place it on a small, standalone table away from speakers rather than larger furniture such as a sideboard. Large pieces of furniture tend to vibrate more as the music plays from speakers. You can check whether the table has vibrations by placing your hand on them as the music plays. The best surface is light, but stiff furniture. Also, ensure the surface is level. You can even use a spirit or bubble level to check whether the surface is level. You may place some cards under the feet of the furniture until it becomes level. Alternatively, you can level the turntable by adjusting the height of the legs accordingly. If it doesn’t have adjustable legs, then place some cards or pads under the legs. Placing your record player on a flat surface ensures that the records spin right for the stylus to read the best vibrations from the groove.

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woman turning on vinyl record
Image credit: IgorVetushko, Deposit Photos

2. Ensure Your Records are Clean

Since the stylus on your turntable reads vibrations from the groove, in case the record is dirty, it will miss some important details. It will end up hitting the dirt and translating it as good vibrations, and this may lead to noise or unclear sound from your records. To get the best sound from your vinyl, ensure you clean them regularly. This way, you’ll remove any dirt particles and grime on the groove, such that the stylus will read clean grooves.

You can simply clean the records with dish soap, relatively warm water, and lint-free glass cleaner. In case you don’t have a lint-free glass cleaner, then you can use your fingers. However, when using your fingers, make sure you have washed your hands thoroughly. While cleaning, avoid damaging any label on the record. Upon cleaning the record, rinse it properly with fresh water and lean it on a clean surface to dry. However, you shouldn’t clean them on each and every play. Just do it regularly and store them in a clean, dry place. Proper storage will ensure they won’t collect dirt soon.

3. Adjust the Tracking Force

Once you have placed your turntable on an appropriate surface and ensured the records are clean, you can now adjust its tracking force. This is basically the tonearm weight. It ensures the stylus is kept in the groove for the best sound. Making this adjustment is best done by balancing the tonearm. To do this, you should follow these steps:

  • ​​​​First, turn off the turntable’s power supply.
  • Next, ensure the counterweight on the tonearm is properly installed on the backside. Basically, the numbers on the ring face of the force gauge on the stylus should face frontwards. 
  • Next, lock the tonearm in a resting position. Then detach the protective covering on the stylus. Slide this cover forwards off the cartridge. While doing this, ensure you are careful enough not to cause any damage to the stylus.
  • Then hold the headshell carefully to stabilize the tonearm as you release the tonearm lock. Get the cueing level in a downward position while still holding the headshell right above the resting position.
  • Next, try rotating the counterweight until the tonearm is balanced in a horizontal position.
  • Once you’ve balanced the tonearm, lock it into its resting position. While locking it, avoid touching the counterweight as doing so would lose the balance point.

Upon balancing the tonearm, you can now start setting the tracking force of the stylus. First, identify the type of cartridge. Generally, a cartridge comes with a recommended tracking force. To get the appropriate tracking force, start with rotating the gauge ring of the tracking force without making any adjustments to the counterweight. Do this until the “0” mark lines with the centerline to set it to a balanced position. Once done, rotate the counterweight in an anticlockwise direction up to the specified tracking force.

4. Align the Cartridge

Obtaining the correct cartridge alignment is crucial in getting the best audio reproduction. The cartridge is responsible for holding the stylus and converting the movement of the stylus into electric signals. You should get a gauge for aligning the cartridge. Some gauges are metallic while others are made of hard material. Metallic ones might be a bit expensive. Basically, the gauge comes with two points with parallel lines. To align the cartridge, the body of the cartridge should be in square to the parallel lines on the gauge. At the same time, the top of the stylus should be sitting at the right angle on the groove. This way, distortion is minimized while at the same time minimizing record wear.

Record player spinning
Image credit: hurricanehank, Deposit Photos

5. Adjust the Vertical Tracking Angle

The vertical tracking angle, abbreviated as VTA, is the angle at which a turntable’s tonearm makes on the groove. It’s important to adjust VTA appropriately for the best sound. The best way to adjust VTA is by using your ears. This means that you should adjust it to the angle you hear it sounds best. To do this, you’ll need to adjust the tonearm height to ensure it is parallel to the vinyl record. If your turntable tonearm slopes downwards, then you’ll lower it at its pivot point when adjusting the height. If the tonearm slopes upwards, then you’ll raise it at its pivot point. To fine-tune the VTA, lower and raise the tonearm to improve bass and treble respectively as you listen until you set it to the best level.

6. Align the Cartridge Azimuth

After aligning the cartridge and adjusting the VTA, you should now align the cartridge azimuth. Azimuth is basically the horizontal balance of a cartridge from the front. It determines the extent to which the stylus leans right or left on the groove. To align the azimuth appropriately, your aim should be to ensure the cartridge is perpendicularly aligned to the groove of a vinyl record. You can use a visual tool such as a bubble level to set the azimuth. You may as well use your ears while adjusting it right or left until the point where you hear that both channels are picking up sound equally and separately, that is there is minimal crosstalk.

Now that you have set all the necessary adjustments right, it’s time to start enjoying your vinyl records and get the most out of them. However, ensure that any subsequent adjustments you make do not interfere with previous adjustments. You can always go back to the previous adjustment to ensure the current one has not interfered with the previous ones. Since you’ll be adjusting different parts of your turntable by hand, you may not get it perfect, especially when dealing with angles, thus use your ears for the best results while making different adjustments.


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